Episode six transcript

[00:00] ELLEN:  Our lives are defined by key moments, sometimes expected, sometimes unexpected. This podcast explores the stories of extraordinary moments in our everyday lives, the joys and celebrations as well as the challenges and surprises. These stories provide opportunities to share ideas and takeaways to learn from. To witness moments where love becomes a living, breathing action that showcases strength, resilience, beauty, and humanity. 

I am your host, Ellen Adair, and welcome to Love Takes Action brought to you by New York Life, helping people act on their love and successfully navigate life's biggest choices since 1845. 

[00:58] ELLEN: Today, we’re talking about:  “Rebuilding and recovering in the wake of a Natural Disaster” We begin with a family from Louisiana who needed help getting back into their home after Hurricane Ida came to shore in 2021.

[01:11 ] MARIAN:

 … My husband always wants us to evacuate. “Go, go, go. I can’t get another you.” 

…these people just come up out of the goodness of their hearts, and just want to help… 

…these people have showed us there’s still beauty in this world

[01:28] ELLEN: And we’ll speak with an agency helping families restore their lives:    

[01:32] THOMAS:  

… The disaster isn't the storm itself. It's the conditions that position communities to bleed out longer than they should after the storm… 

  … It is a gift to be able to see something so dark and know that you are in a position to do some good. 

[01:49] ELLEN:  On today’s episode, we begin with Marian Chauvin, a resident of Houma, Louisiana, a small bayou community 60 miles outside New Orleans. Her house sustained heavy damage during the battering winds and rain of Hurricane Ida in the Fall of 2021.

[02:07] ELLEN:  Marian, thanks for joining us. Where did you grow up?

[02:12] MARIAN: I grew up downtown Houma, Louisiana, about 60 miles south of New Orleans.

[02:21] ELLEN: Tell us what life is like in the bayou? 

[02:23] MARIAN: Kind of easy, you know. Fishing, hanging out, got a lot of outside cookouts and stuff. Boiling seafood. A pretty close-knit community - like a giant family. A really nice place for our kids to grow up. I'm glad our kids had to experience this.

[02:41] ELLEN:  When you were a kid, did you have a sense of how the dangerous storms could be?

[02:48] MARIAN:  Yes, I remember pretty young. I think it was Betsy that came; I remember being at my uncle's house and you had to leave the doors and windows cracked open or it would blew the glass out. 

Katrina was probably the worst in a while. 

And then, of course, Ida was the absolute strongest we've ever experienced here – wind-wise.

Ike was the worst flood-wise.

[03:15] ELLEN: All most of us can do is imagine it, but living through storms has been a reality for you, basically all of your life. So, at this point, do you have a sense, like in your bones, when a big storm is coming?

[03:32] MARIAN: I actually kind of do because when the storm is coming, I kind of watch its path and I kind of feel out, and I decide if it feels like it's scary enough for me to leave or not. 

My husband of course always wants us to evacuate. “Go, go, go, I can't get another you.” 

You know, it's always “Should I spend all that money?” 

You know, you gotta do what's best for the children. 

[03:59] ELLEN: Of course. Did your calculations change when you became a parent?

[04:06] MARIAN:  Yes, definitely. Definitely. When you have the babies you just definitely take the safest route. No matter what. Even if it's not too bad. You just kind of still want to be on guard. 

My brother stayed for this storm. He stayed for every storm and said this will probably be the last storm he ever stays for because this one here really scared him.

[04:32] ELLEN:  Oh, goodness. Would you mind telling us about your house?

[04:38] MARIAN:  Well, we first bought this house in 1989. It was three small bedrooms and one bathroom. 

So, we had three girls, like two teenagers and one eight-year-old and from my husband couldn't stand a chance to get in that bathroom with three girls and it was tiny. 

So, we decided we needed to expand. So, we added on 1000 square feet to the back. And he works offshore and overseas so he's going a lot like 30 days, 60 days, 80 days, whatever it takes, whatever the job takes. 

[05:21] ELLEN:  And what’s your job at home?

[05:23] MARIAN:  My mom was first diagnosed with cancer when she was only 39. That was a chore, you know, kind of gave up my life to dedicate it to taking care of my mom. 

So, that was my job. My mom, her medical means, raising my three children, adding on to my house. 

[05:45] ELLEN:  What are your days like?

[05:48] MARIAN:  So, tending to my mom during the day, making sure their food cooked and they’re  fed. And doing my kids’ homework when they got off the bus. After they were bathed, fed and put to bed, then I started my house building. Brushing up my carpenter skills.

[06:07] ELLEN: So, basically your work is never done? 

[06:10] MARIAN:  No.

[06:11] ELLEN:  You’re nurse, caregiver, cook, teacher… 

[06:15] MARIAN:  Maid…

[06:17] ELLEN:  Maid, general contractor, carpenter, plumber…

[06:22] MARIAN:  Electrician, when I can't get away with it without my husband looking, because he says I'm not afraid of electricity enough. It scares him, so. 

[06:30] ELLEN:  Did you have any help doing the renovation? 

[06:33] MARIAN:  So, we got help to close in the back. You know, do the roof over the whole house and block in the back. And then after that, I did the inside work myself while my husband was at work. 

[06:49] ELLEN: Before this project did you have any experience with construction?

[06:53] MARIAN:  A lot of things that I didn't know, like I didn't know how to do drywall. So, I thought maybe if I went to Home Depot and found the most elderly, scruffiest looking man that had drywall all over him, he could probably teach me a thing or two, you know. 

So, I asked him if he could give me a few pointers and maybe help me pick out some tools that I would need to be using. So, he did and also said “it's a dusty, dirty thing, but if you want to calm down the dust instead of dry sanding, you could wet sand with a wet sponge or towel or something.” 

So, I thought, well that be great. You know, because the kids you know, keep the dust down. So, that’s how I learned how to do it. Speaking to gentlemen in Home Depot.

[07:46] ELLEN: (Laugh with her). So, what was the timeframe for the  addition to the house?

[07:49] MARIAN: Started it in 2004, and probably finished around 2007.

[07:58] ELLEN: It must have been so satisfying to have the work done and to get to make the new rooms just part of your home!

[08:05] MARIAN:  The kids were extremely happy. I let them pick out colors and things that they would like. Melissa liked, she was studying clouds, like stratus and cumulus, and all. So, I did all of that in her room. And I created those clouds with a Walmart bag and some blue paint and white paint. Different shades. It looks really good and it came out really nice. 

So, Shelby was like, she always wanted to drive a race car. So, we did kind of the gray and black checkered pattern in her room. She was my little tomboy.

[08:45] ELLEN: Can you talk a little bit about last fall and the days before Hurricane Ida. What were your expectations at that time and what other things were going on?

[08:57] MARIAN: So, me, Shelby, the two boys and our three puppies hit the road to stay with some cousins in Arkansas. 

She is actually, through the midst of all of this chaos we livin’ through, got diagnosed with cancer. A  type they don't really know much about yet.  So, leave it to her to come up with something new. 

They gave her less than 15% chance to make it to five years. 

So, we were, um, battling that in the midst of evacuating but we tried to make it like a little vacation of it with the babies. We even stopped at a little zoo somewhere to let them see the animals and all. Make it like it was not so traumatic for them, you know?

[09:54] ELLEN:  Yeah, how is Shelby doing now?

[09:56] MARIAN;  She's trying to stay optimistic. I try to keep her with a positive attitude. I try to do little things here and there to make memories for her and the boys, you know, because we really don't know how long we're going to have her.

[10:11] ELLEN: That’s so hard. I can’t imagine. So, you’re in Arkansas during the hurricane. How long was it before you were able to actually be in touch with your family back in Louisiana?

[10:30] MARIAN: I think it’s about five days. 

[10:32] ELLEN: Sigh.

[10:33] MARIAN: Five days…

[10:34] ELLEN: That was a long time.

[10:36] MARIAN: Yeah.

[10:37] ELLEN:  And I imagine as each day passes, not having any way to reach them, you have no idea if your family’s okay, or if your home is there, and you’re tending to your daughter’s needs. So tough.

[10:51] MARIAN: Right. And we watched the news faithfully. And they never showed anything; except New Orleans. “Oh, it's not so bad. It's not so bad.” 

But yet here, roofs have been ripped off. Literally, I have a cousin who came home to just blocks. Her entire house was gone. 

We did have a considerable amount of damage in the $50,000 area. My ridge vent came up on the roof from the wind. A couple tree branches - considerable size tree branches, bigger than your average leg - stuck through the roof.

So we had to change wood. You know, redo the whole roof. Water came in the whole center of the house and just dripped down the walls, every light fixture, every ceiling fan, just full of water. So.

[11:50] ELLEN: (sigh), is that where most of the damage came from?

[11:53] MARIAN: Yes, yes. And then from everything being wet, no electricity. It was August. It was hot. 

Like we stayed in the shed in the backyard waiting for help because there were no motels. We couldn't find a motel. Like eight and a half hours away I think was the closest. 

The temperature gauge on the thermometer was reading like 135, inside the shed, because it's metal. So, it was pretty hot.

[12:28] ELLEN: And this is during the pandemic, right? 

[12:31] MARIAN: Yes, yes.. 

[12:33] ELLEN: Did that make it particularly hard? 

[12:35] MARIAN: It did because the supplies, you know, shelves were pretty bare before and then made it even harder to find things, you know? 

[12:47] ELLEN: But you just kept going?

[12:50] MARIAN: I don't have a lot of choice. I mean, I have all these people depending on me. That was my whole life. 

You know, my mom was sick at a young age. So, I was basically the one who raised my two brothers. I fed them. I cooked for them, did their laundry, helped them with their homework and everything. So, I guess it was kind of like I felt like it was my job. 

[13:15] ELLEN: Who’s there for you?

[13:18] MARIAN: Ah, Trent, when he's home. He actually was in Saudi Arabia while all this was going on and could not leave. 

And another thing, when the doctor reached out and told me about Shelby having cancer, I couldn't tell him about that. 

And he's got to watch like 30 something monitors and got to keep up on everybody and stop if somebody is about to be in danger or whatever. So, he has to keep his mind on his work. 

So, I couldn’t share that information with him. I had to kind of keep it to myself. But you know, it's just what I had to do. I couldn't put those other guys lives in danger, because if he wasn't paying attention to his jobs, somebody can get hurt.

[14:06] ELLEN: You’re just really always taking care of everyone else, even your husband’s co-workers. Do you find that the community around you a strength for you, when you’re collectively dealing with these natural events?

[14:21] MARIAN: They've been extremely helpful. Fuel - a pump truck came and parked and if you brought your gas can you get five gallons of gas, you know. That was a big help when the generators while running and there was no electricity in Houma to pump gas. So, that was a big help. 

The Cajun Navy, they came down one time and cooked. They had a chef from a restaurant in New Orleans that came down and cooked for us one day. So, that was pretty nice.

[14:54] ELLEN: But at some point, some outside agencies came to help in Houma, right?

[14:58] MARIAN: Yes, our community had stood up and made phone calls and said, “Look, it's really bad. We need help. What can you do? Can anybody do anything?” 

And just got on the phone and reached out to bring people in and when the other bayous didn't have the same help we had, whether they weren't able to or didn't have the knowledge of how to find anybody, we packed trailers and trucks and brought them supplies, because we knew how grateful we were to get them. So, whatever we had extra, you know, we were suppling and elsewhere.

[15:42] ELLEN: How did you get connected with the folks from the St. Bernard Project? 

[15:47] MARIAN: I remember a lady given a friend of mine a card for some reason and saying “If you know anybody who could use a little bit help, pass on the card.” 

And he came and he says, “I'm not going to use this, because you know, I'm not gonna need no help on my house.”

So, he left the card and I looked at it a couple of times, and I said, “Wonder if I should call and see maybe they could help us,” because I was just in a really bad car wreck. And I had some back procedures and there’s no way I was going to be able to tackle this task like I did the first time. 

Plus I’m not as young chicken as I used to be. You know, that was a long time ago. 

So, I gave the number a call, and this sweet, sweet, sweet little voice on the other side - her name was Grace. Just like a little angel.

She says, “I will send you information.” She asked me a few questions. “I'll send you information and then you'll be getting a call.” 

Well, the very next day. I got a call asking if somebody could come take a ride and look at the house. Jamison came by and they took a little walk through the house and said, “Wow, it is bad, the mold and mildew and everything.” And he said, “I believe we can help you.” 

I think it was a Thursday. He said, “We could start on Saturday, if you would like?” 

And I was like, “Really?” 

He's like, “Yeah.” 

I couldn't believe it because everybody else was slammed, you know, ‘it's gonna be three months before I get to you’ and stuff farther down the line than that.  

So, Saturday I was elated. I was out here with bells and whistles on. The groups came out and they started working and I felt obligated to help them too. So, we cooked. I cooked for them, like, I cooked crawfish stew and potato salad. You know made some southern cooking and they was eaten up a storm. 

One guy came from New York he said he had a food truck out there. He ate five plates full. He was, 'I’ve never had food this good in my life. I'd ask you for the recipe, but I don't think I could do it justice.’ So, that made me feel good. 

I tell you what these people have changed our lives. I feel my family has grown meeting them. Some of them we still keep in touch with texting all the time. They just become family to us. 

[18:33] ELLEN: It sounds like they touched you in so many ways?   

[18:36] MARIAN: Not only did they take the time to listen, but if it makes any sense to you, they heard us. 

Physically and mentally - this group literally saved my life. I think, our lives. 

Such good hearts. I mean these people have showed us that there's still beauty in this world and after you see all this ugly out there that is going on. And these people just come up out of the goodness of their heart and just want to help.

[19:14] ELLEN: Can you talk a little bit about the folks at SBP who helped in the recovery?

[19:19] MARIAN:  They have the most wonderful spirits.

Philadelphia, New York, Ohio, California, Texas, North Carolina, Saudi Arabia, Honduras.

They've come from far to be volunteers - to assist.

They had like, this sweet little girl who's trying to find her way. She doesn't know what to take in college. So, she's general right now and she's trying to decide and she's like, “I don't know what to do?” 

And I was like, “Well, you know, you just have to follow your heart, because try to decide what makes you happy.” And if you’re doing something in life that you love, it's not technically work. 

Right? So, you’ll enjoy it a lot better than if you doing it something that you really despise. You can't stand going to work, you know, it makes it miserable. So, even if the pay is cut a little bit, you’ll enjoy a lot more, you know?

[20:26] ELLEN: Yeah. So, looking back on the last year, are there moments that really stick with you?

[20:34] MARIAN: A lot of anxious moments seeing it all come together, because when you looked at it with the mold it was devastating. And then they came in ripped everything out. My house was literally just studs. 

We walked through it and it was just empty studs. It just looked so lonely and heartbreaking. And then the drywall came and started coming up and then it started coming back to life. 

It wasn't perfect. We had a few little obstacles but SBP, and their crew, every time something came up without fail, they just handled it and made it a pleasant experience. 

I can't thank these people enough. And there's not enough words for me to express my gratitude to them for literally saving us - giving us back the home we work so hard for - that Ida just, you know, knocked in the dirt. 

My favorite things are watching the children smile and get excited. Those are my gifts.

I don't know, maybe I was born to be a caretaker. I still to this day take care of my brothers and they’re old enough to do for themselves but I'm still there no matter what. 

You could call me anytime, it doesn't matter, I'm coming out. If you need a designated driver, I’m there. You know, it doesn't matter.

[22:17] ELLEN:  You talked about the first renovation that Shelby and her sister were able to make some suggestions for their rooms. Are the young boys, Shelby's boys, able to do the same thing?

[22:30] MARIAN: Yeah, we actually designated a different room for Brendon, a little bit bigger room this time and he wants his room to be blue. 

So, I said well, I was gonna let him pick out his paint. We looked at paint swatches and he picked out his blue and it's almost the same color as the room with the clouds. 

So, we went there and I said, “How about if he had this room?” 

He goes, “I get this room?” and I said, “Yeah.” 

He's like, “Can we keep it like this, and I could be like camping out and we could put my little tent in here?” and everything and I'm like “Yeah, you wanted to stay clouds?” 

He goes, “I really do. Because it's already blue.” He loves blue. 

One of the ladies that came all the way from California with her daughter sent a gift to Brendan, so we could buy him a new bed. 

How incredible was that? It was special. Special.

[23:35] ELLEN:  Do you have any advice for someone who might be facing some obstacles in their life?

[23:41] MARIAN: Don't give up hope. Just think positive. 

As devastating as things can be, if you do keep looking you will find a bright side. We got an extension to our family from SBP. 

[23:59] ELLEN: Marian, thank you for sharing your story with us. Please accept our positive thoughts for you, Shelby, her boys and the rest of your family.

(Sound Design)

Next let’s take a closer look at the St. Bernard Project, with its Chief Recovery Officer, Thomas Corley. SBP is a non-profit based in New Orleans, and their mission is to prevent some of the suffering natural disasters cause. They were founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and SBP through its staff, and volunteers and association with AmeriCorps, is delivering a wide-range of preparation and recovery services to families in need after a natural event ravages a region.

Thomas, thank you for joining us today.

I was very struck in Marian’s story, with her comment that the people at the St. Bernard Project really ‘heard’ her. Is that something that you  emphasize?

[25:01] THOMAS:  What we know is that disasters, they don't discriminate based on race, economic status, geo-graphics.

Disasters can affect anyone and everyone.

And so, when organizations like SBP are on the ground and meeting Marian for the first time, they have to be heard. They have to know that there is a neighbor, there is a helper, there is someone there to understand the nuances,  the uniquenesses of their darkest moment.

But in those early weeks, and those early months our AmeriCorps members, our volunteers, our staff, it's their mission to authentically connect with those that are affected so that they do feel heard and supported and loved in that dark moment. 

[25:50] ELLEN: Natural events are going to continue to occur. But we, as a society, decide if it’s a disaster or not, because the disaster is the human impact that comes after.

[26:04] THOMAS: I agree. The disaster isn't the storm itself. It's the conditions that position communities to bleed out longer than they should after the storm. And that's something that as a community, as a society like we can change. 

 If we are to make meaningful investment and true change in how do we prepare homeowners and communities to withstand future storms  - by building resiliently. By having a recovery action plan in place. By having the proper insurance for homeowners. 

If we can make these meaningful changes in preparedness and bring about innovation and growth into our post disaster recovery system landscape that's when the rebuilding work can be diminished. And we position communities and individuals and families to recover on their own.

And that's ultimately the awakening that our organization had five or six years ago, is recognizing that while we were building more homes and building faster, and bringing resiliency standards to these properties, that if we didn't cure the conditions and try to affect change in the preparedness and in the post disaster System Recovery space, if we didn't affect change there, we'd always just be treading water in an ever expanding ocean. 

[27:31] ELLEN: So, what is SBP doing to try to affect this change? 

[27:37] THOMAS:  So today, we have incredible talent and leadership and investment across SBP outside of our build intervention in our disaster response space.

We have team members that are advocating for programs and investments that get disaster recovery dollars to individuals faster.

And we have individuals that are really doing the research into building science and how do we build homes effectively, efficiently, resiliently, so that when we say goodbye to Miss Marian, she has a roof that won't blow off again, if there's a Cat Three or Cat Four that comes around the Gulf Coast. 

[28:16] ELLEN: What do you remember about that moment – of saying goodbye to Marian? 

[28:22] THOMAS: We’re at Marian's house on the, like, Welcome Home Party Day. It's the last day that we're there. We're cleaning it.

We're celebrating it and Marian's there speaking to the love and the appreciation that she has for our team and it's beautiful. She has adopted our AmeriCorps members and some of our volunteers as if they're her own children. It's a beautiful moment. 

But, the reality is, the only thing that could be better than that is if Marian never had to meet us. Like, it's beautiful that we got to and that we have this relationship with her, but I wish we'd never met her and the reason why we met her is, as you said, storms affecting the Gulf Coast happened before I was born. They'll happen after I’m dead. This is the reality of living in the Gulf. 

But the lack of innovation in our disaster recovery systems and a lack of meaningful progress in how we build and bring resiliency into homes, that creates an expanding void, where there will always need to be a group like St. Bernard Project, in communities rebuilding homes for folks that can't do it themselves. 

/Is there anything about Marian’s story that feels particularly special to you?

[29:39] THOMAS:  Doing this for 10 years, I have met a lot of people in Missouri, in New York, in New Jersey, Puerto Rico, Texas. Met a lot of people. The experience of losing your home and the level of uncertainty and unpredictability that comes post-storm, it destroys people. People lose their job. People lose their relationships. 

From moment one, Marian had every opportunity to submit herself to the darkness. And if I were her, I probably would have. Every day she showed up with a smile, with a hug, with real raw love to share with our team. 

Marian's ability to remain positive and her ability to see that light kind of in the distance, that state of repair and an opportunity to build new memories, her ability to see that makes her remarkably unique, because it's not easy. And I think when we compare Marian to the hundreds of families that SBP serves year over year, she stands out as an individual. 

[30:53] ELLEN: Is that what helps to energize  you – doing this work?? 

[30:58] THOMAS: Yeah, I was having a drink with a friend on Friday talking just about this. You know, we just saw an EF3 rip through Arabi – the strongest tornado to ever touchdown in Greater New Orleans area. 

We're looking at photos and I found myself,  and this is weird, but I found myself like getting excited. 

She was like, “How can you be excited?” 

Said, “We can't change the fact that the disaster happened, but I know that I work for an organization and I am surrounded by a team of people that will put in 18-hour days if necessary to help that one person that needs us right now.”

 It is a gift to be able to see something so dark and know that you are in a position to do some good. Can't undo the tornado. Can't take that away from Arabi. We can't take that away from our neighbors. 

But, we can rally resources. We can be out there Saturday. We can run debris removal, like we can do something about that and I'm going to feel good about it. I'm going to feel good that we work for an organization that can actually make a difference in 48 hours. 

[32:03] ELLEN: There have to be so many moments that you witness that are very moving.

[32:08] THOMAS: The last homeowner I served before I moved up to Missouri and we were doing a welcome home celebration similar to how we ran with Marian just a couple of weeks ago. And so, before the event was at the house just kind of walking through it. And hung up on the wall was a certificate. It was in her son's name and it was ‘Most Improved Student.’ And so I asked Miss Mary like, “What was that all about?” because it was dated just a couple of weeks prior.

She explained that in the month-and-a-half since her son had been back home, because they had been living with family, had been back home in his bedroom, the C’s and the D's that he was getting in elementary school turned into B’s and turned into A's. Nothing else was different. Nothing else, everything else was the same. 

We see individuals in their darkest moment. And what we do is an immediate intervention, providing rebuilt property, that rebuilt home, that sense of security. They can close the door and lock it, like, they’re home again.

But the ripple effect from that, we don't always get to see how far out that extends. The preserving of equity in the home and how that affects future generations or what it does to the marriage or what it does to the kid, but in that moment, I got to see it. I've seen it in a few different ways, in a few different states over a decade. It's humbling.

 I feel I don't deserve to be in the presence of something so beautiful, which is oftentimes just getting someone back on track. It’s just getting them to a place where they're not just surviving, but their position to thrive. 

And seeing Miss Mary's son and knowing that at that age, had we not gotten him back into his bedroom, so he could rest and be ready for school, and focus again - his life could have turned out super different. 

I don't think that I deserve to see this beauty on the regular. 

[34:05] ELLEN: Well, if I may, if anyone deserves moments of beauty, it’s someone who’s helping others, like you do. Thank you for joining us Thomas.

[34:25] ELLEN: And thank you for joining us on this episode of Love Takes Action. If you like what you hear, we invite you to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform–you can add your comments, and share with your friends and family. It’s a chance to celebrate the voices of our inspiring guests and their stories. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram or visit our website at newyorklife.com

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